A closer look at fracking for natural gas

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In 2012, President Barack Obama indicated that the U.S. has a supply of natural gas that can last nearly 100 years. His administration intends to safely develop it. In May 2013, he added that by 2020, the U.S. would probably be a net gas exporter.

By 2013, shale gas production reached 33 billion cubic feet per day, up from 5 billion cubic feet in 2007. It represents 40 percent of the total U.S. natural gas production. Its benefits included a supply of domestic energy, low energy prices, fees paid to landowners, taxes for governmental units, and jobs. The existence of natural gas liquids could lead to investments in processing facilities near the fracking sites.

As many as 25 requests were submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy to develop facilities for liquefying natural gas and shipping it to higher-value international markets. If the requests are honored, more than 40 percent of our natural gas could be shipped out of the country.

Last November, Illinois issued regulations controlling fracking for oil and gas in Illinois. As of this January, only one firm has applied for a permit. The low prices of oil and natural gas have temporarily slowed development.

Some of the oil and gas deposits, along with sand used in fracking, are located near or in state parks and natural areas. Southern Illinoisians Against Fracturing our Environment continues to express concerns about the process.

Fracking has proved contentious in many areas, as earthquakes, water and air pollution, and some chemicals used have adverse effects on people, wildlife and natural areas. Two states, Vermont and New York, have banned fracking. Some communities have also banned it.

Several energy analysts suggest the actual gas supply could fall far short of estimates, as some of the deposits could prove less abundant or more difficult to develop. Data from existing wells indicates that up to 90 percent of the gas production occurs within the first three years, requiring ongoing drilling to maintain production.

Fracking has high capital costs; many of the firms are having difficulty repaying their debts. The speed at which fracking occurred nationally led to a glut in supplies and low prices. At around $3.50 per mmbtus [1 million British Thermal Units], prices today remain far below the $6 to $8 range needed to cover costs.

If sufficient natural gas is liquefied for the global market, gas prices would rise, potentially undermining the expected return of manufacturing to the U.S. One estimate indicated that shipping the gas to the global marketplace could reduce the U.S. supply to less than 30 years. Roughly 25 percent of the energy in the gas is used to compress it into a liquid and maintain it at -260 degrees Fahrenheit to ship it to global markets.

Natural gas has been portrayed as a transitional energy source leading to a clean-energy future. However, the large volume of methane leaks in the full natural gas fracking fuel cycle cast doubts on its portrayal as a clean fuel.

With the recognition that climate change is real and accelerating and linked to human activities, carbon releases from all fossil fuels, including natural gas, will need to be reduced.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2015, issue

Share this story